Schenectady County District Attorney Robert M. Carney announced that on April 26, 2022, Earl Armstrong, a 41-year old resident of Amsterdam, NY and an operator of an unlicensed motor vehicle repair shop in the City of Schenectady, pleaded guilty to one count of Scheme to Defraud in the First Degree, a Class E felony, in Schenectady County Court before Schenectady County Court Judge Matthew J. Sypniewski. In pleading guilty, the defendant satisfied a 15-count indictment against him, which charged one count of Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Third Degree (Class D felony), ten counts of Criminal Possession of a Forged Instrument in the Second Degree (Class D felonies), one count of Reproducing False License Plates (Class E felony), one count of Scheme to Defraud in the First Degree (Class E felony), and two counts of Aggravated Unlicensed Operation of a Motor Vehicle in the Second Degree (Class A misdemeanors). As part of the plea agreement, the defendant will be sentenced as a Second Felony Offender and receive a sentence of 1.5 years to 3 years in state prison and ordered to pay restitution. Sentencing in this matter is scheduled for July 19, 2022. In addition, the defendant will plead guilty to a separate felony Grand Larceny charge and will receive a concurrent 1.5 years to 3 years state prison sentence and also be ordered to pay restitution.
The investigation into Mr. Armstrong was initiated in May 2020 after DA investigators observed an individual operating a blue Ford F-150 truck that had a temporary paper license plate purportedly issued by the State of Texas Department of Motor Vehicles during a surveillance operation in the City of Schenectady. The operator was subsequently identified as Earl Armstrong whose driver’s license was revoked at the time. DA investigators conducted additional investigation into the Texas license plate on the truck due to prior investigations involving scams using fraudulent Texas plates. As a result, investigators discovered that the truck in question had been reported stolen out of Maryland. Thereafter, investigators began to search for the stolen vehicle.
Meanwhile, investigators further discovered that, in Texas, car dealerships have access to an electronic license plate system (known as the “e-TAG” system) that allows them to create temporary license plates on behalf of the State of Texas Department of Motor Vehicles for use in very limited circumstances. The temporary license plates observed here could only be validly issued by Texas DMV via a Texas dealership if it was created in connection with a retail car sale taking place in Texas by a Texas dealership. Despite that, at the time, there were no safeguards in place to ensure that the plates were issued appropriately via the e-TAG system. Investigators also learned that the e-TAG system was not integrated with the National Crime Information Center (“NCIC”) which would have “red-flagged” the vehicle as being reported stolen. The NCIC is an electronic database of criminal justice information utilized by federal, state, and local law enforcement, including the NYS Department of Motor Vehicles. Accordingly, the temporary plate on the F-150 would appear to be valid to law enforcement inquiries using only the license plate number. However, if the Vehicle Identification Number was queried in NCIC, as it was by DA investigators in this case, the vehicle would return stolen.
Due to the vast numbers of Texas paper license plates observed in the Capital Region and given their likely fraudulent nature as used in New York, local law enforcement agencies, together with the New York State Police and NYS DMV, made numerous traffic stops in and around the Capital Region. Those efforts resulted in the seizure of numerous stolen vehicles, firearms, narcotics, as well as the discovery of drivers operating vehicles with revoked or suspended driving privileges. Locally, members of the Schenectady County Sheriff’s Office, and the Schenectady and Niskayuna Police Departments were able to develop intelligence indicating that the defendant was selling the Texas license plates for hundreds of dollars out of his unlicensed vehicle repair shop in the area of State and Hulett Streets in Schenectady, NY. DA investigators subsequently located the stolen Ford F-150 parked outside of the defendant’s apartment in Amsterdam, NY. The vehicle was seized by NYS DMV investigators and eventually returned to the car dealership in Maryland.
The investigation into Mr. Armstrong culminated with the execution of search warrants on the defendant’s repair shop and the defendant’s arrest. During the search, investigators seized numerous fraudulent Texas license plates and laminating materials that the defendant used to secure the fraudulent plates on customer vehicles. The defendant’s text messages with his co-conspirators obtained by investigators show that the defendant’s fraudulent license plate sales business was quite lucrative. At least one of the defendant’s co-conspirators was indicted by the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas in connection with the scheme to sell fraudulent Texas paper tags.
District Attorney Carney stated, “This prosecution results from the curiosity of DA Investigator James McCrum regarding the suspicious use of a paper Texas license plate. It turns out that Mr. Armstrong played a small local part in a scheme in which federal authorities have taken down a ring of individuals in Texas and New York responsible for issuing nearly 600,000 fraudulent temporary plates. These phony plates could be used, as this one was, to conceal a stolen car, or to be placed on vehicles used to commit other crimes and avoid detection. Once again, our CARP Unit, consisting of ADA William Lemon and Investigator James McCrum, discovered, exposed and eliminated a scam harmful to taxpayers and, in this case, one which was intended to circumvent state laws to promote highway safety.”
NYS Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Mark J.F. Schroeder stated, “DMV’s field investigators work tirelessly to protect New Yorkers from fraud such as this that jeopardizes the safety of our roads. I commend the Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office for its hard work and dedication that resulted in this guilty plea.”
The Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office thanks the Schenectady County Sheriff’s Office, Schenectady Police Department, Niskayuna Police Department, New York State Department of Motor Vehicles and State of Texas Department of Motor Vehicles for their assistance in investigating and prosecuting these crimes. The case is being prosecuted by ADA William Lemon. The defendant is represented by attorney Brian Mercy of the Schenectady County Conflict Defender’s Office. For further information, contact ADA Lemon at 518-388-4364.